Eschewing the Fat. Part III: Portion Distortion

Serving size-pistachios

Then and Now

Way back in 1996, the year my son Samm was born, a small popcorn at the movies was ~270 calories. Today, it’s 630 calories, and a tub can run you around 1,600! Similarly, a serving of pizza was around 500 calories compared with today at 850 cals. See chart below.


A portion of pistachios or other nuts is a palmful.

portion distortion image2Size matters because research shows that we tend to eat what we see—so when we see a big portion of something, we typically eat more of it, hungry or not. As reported in a recent study by researchers at the University of  Cambridge, normalizing portions could cut out about 500 calories a day, which translates roughly to 1lb of weight loss per week. The first few bites are usually the best anyhow, so why not try eating less and enjoying it more?

Label Lies

When it comes to serving size, nutrition labels have not kept pace with American appetites. Food manufacturers can be rather sneaky in fact, providing serving sizes from 30 years ago–not the usual portion eaten today–so their food looks healthier than it is. To remedy this, the Food and Drug Administration is pushing for labels that are more in line with the portions Americans eat nowadays. For example, most cereal labels show 3/4 cup as the serving size. But filling your bowl, as is common, can total 2 or 3 cups, or up to 4 times the serving size (and calories) listed! Your best strategy? Make a habit of reading labels, including the serving size, just as you would check the price tag and size before you buy something.

Soup or Salad Anyone?

According to a study in the journal Appetite, having a salad before or as part of the meal helped people consume 11 percent fewer calories overall. Another study showed that having soup (broth-based is better) before a meal can help people consume up to 20 percent fewer calories.


Tips to Take Away

  • Switch to smaller plates and make sure your food portions fit within the plate’s food area (not its rim). This strategy can help train your brain to recognize downsized portions as the new normal.
  • Eat foods that are more filling and help you feel satisfied longer. Fiber is a big help in this regard: fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains…
  • Ask for veggies instead of bread when you dine out. Most places are more than happy to oblige.
  • Fill out calorie-dense foods like rice and pasta with “free” foods like chopped spinach or other veggies. It feels like more, and it’s a great way to eat your vegetables.
  • For more tips, check out the CDC’s How to Avoid Portion Control Pitfalls.

–Keep Moving, Jen Katt

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